Guest Piece: Joplin’s Black History – Leslie Simpson

The history of Joplin from the point of view of its black population has been difficult to trace. People are probably aware that Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, but his family left when he was still an infant. There was also the infamous lynching episode and subsequent flight of black citizens in 1903. But what about those who stayed, worked, raised their children, and died in Joplin? What were their lives like?

The earliest black inhabitants of southwest Missouri were, obviously, slaves belonging to the first white settlers. The 1850 slave schedule for Jasper County listed 212 slaves, including 3 belonging to John C. Cox, who later established the town of Joplin. There were 166 slaveholders registered in the county in 1861. Slaves were itemized on county probate records and deed transfers as well. It is heart-rending to read some of these documents. For instance, there is the account of an entire family (Sarah, Mary, Henry, Lewis, Susan, and Matilda) being sold for $1 and of three “copper-colored slaves” given to Arabella Sanders by her mother Margaret as a gift.

What happened to these people after they were freed? How did they earn a living? The 1870 census reveals the few occupations that were available to them—mill work, farm labor, and housekeeping. The mining boom, which put Joplin on the map in 1872, gave the freed slaves many more options. The 1880 census indicates that they held jobs in hotels, butcher shops, saloons, laundries, livery stables, in addition to doing farm and domestic work. They also worked in the mines. In fact, some were even mine owners! The Black Seven mine was owned by seven black men.

Joplin’s population grew from 9,943 in 1890 to 26,023 in 1900. Business was booming, and there was work for all. The 1900 census reveals an interesting trend. In addition to the previously noted occupations held by blacks, there were also more skilled professions listed—teacher, preacher, physician, barber, stone mason, plasterer, coachman, ice man, carpenter, taxi driver, grocer, upholsterer, and woolen mill, to name a few. But this trend did not last, probably due to the Great Depression and to the end of the mining era. In the 1937 Negro City and County Directory the majority of Joplin’s black citizenry were porters, domestic workers, and janitors. The only black-owned businesses were a dry cleaner, shoe shine parlor, barber shop, shoe repair shop, and a boarding house.

Speaking of 1937, the introduction to the Joplin city directory for that year, written by the Chamber of Commerce, enthuses that “The population is almost entirely white and almost entirely composed of intelligent, native stock, thereby eliminating the chief source of recurrent labor troubles.”

These are merely observations based upon a few historic documents. The black history of Joplin has yet to be written.

Leslie Simpson, an expert on Joplin history and architecture, is the director of the Post Memorial Art Reference Library, located within the Joplin Public Library. She is the author of From Lincoln Logs to Lego Blocks: How Joplin Was Built, Now and Then and Again: Joplin Historic Architecture. and Joplin: A Postcard History.

George Sears

In 1907, the front page of the Joplin News-Herald featured the obituary of George Sears. Obituaries on the front page were not uncommon, but in this case it was unusual that Sears was featured so prominently because he was African-American. Both the Joplin Globe (a Democratic paper under Gilbert Barbee) and the Joplin News-Herald (the city’s Republican paper) failed to highlight the lives of the city’s African American residents, save for when they were caught committing crimes.

His obituary stated,

“’Uncle’” George Sears, one of the best known and most highly respected colored citizens of Joplin, died at his home, 112 Pearl Street [Avenue], this morning at 9:30 o’clock. Uncle George would have been 60 years old in seven days and has been a resident of Joplin ever since there was a Joplin. He was the first negro in Murphysburg.

He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1847, and came to Joplin when a young man. When he first came to Joplin, he engaged in mining which he followed until he became too old to work in the ground. He then took up janitor work of the M.E. Church on Fourth and Wall Streets. He joined the Baptist church when young and was a Baptist deacon for about twenty years. He was also a member of the K.P. and Masonic lodges.

Uncle George has distinguished himself several times in the Republican convention by making speeches and exerting his influence for the party. He had gained a famous reputation as a barbecue cook and was always in demand.

He was married in 1885 and leaves a wife and three daughters and one grand-granddaughter. A few years ago, out of pity for two little orphan boys, Deacon Sears adopted them and they were often seen with him. The arrangements for his funeral have not yet been completed, pending word from a minister. Throughout his life in Joplin, Uncle George bore a spotless reputation and stood well among all those who knew him.”

Rarely does one see such an obituary for an African-American in any of the early Joplin papers. From his obituary, however, it is clear that George’s passing was featured on the front page for several reasons: One, he was the “first negro in Murphysburg.” Second, he was an active participant in local Republican politics. It is possible he worked to secure African-American votes for Republican candidates which, the News-Herald being a Republican paper, may have been grateful for. Third, he was known as a top-notch barbeque cook, and probably served up ‘cue to a large segment of Joplin’s population throughout the years.